Legislature’s 90th Day: Optomistrists See An Opening In The Eye War

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What was supposed to be the least interesting bill heard on what was supposed to be the final day of the legislative session took quite a turn Sunday morning.  The bill, HB 289 titled ““An Act relating to the membership of the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers”, all of the sudden wasn’t about Alaskans hair at all, it is now about our eyes.

HB 289 was originally about reforming the makeup of the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers.

Here is what the sponsor statement says of the bill:

The board oversees the licensing of 2,271 hairdressers; 962 manicurists and nail technicians; 542 estheticians; 151 barbers; and 146 tattoo and piercing artists. The existing board structure has 1 hairdresser, 1 hairdresser with an esthetician certification, 1 tattoo or piercing artist, 1 public member and 2 barbers.

In 2015, the legislature passed HB 131, which required manicurists and nail technicians to become licensed through the board; however the existing statute does not provide for representation from that sector of the industry. HB 289 fixes this by increasing the board from 6 to 7 members, so that the second largest body of licensees the board oversees has a seat at the table to represent their trade.

Barbers and Hairdressers? Boring, right? Not after the Senate Finance Committee got ahold of it.

The Senate Finance Committee Sunday morning offered a committee substitute for the bill that would added a sections reforming an entirely different board, The  Board of Examiners in Optometry. The committee substitute language would now allow that board to “adopt regulations to allow prescriptions and agents for the treatment of eye diseases and; it will describe the scope and practice for license and perform ophthalmic surgery” according to the testimony Sen. Anna MacKinnon’s staffer Erin Shine.

So the change would now have the Board of Examiners in Optometry regulating who gets to prescribe drugs and perform surgery on your eyes. That is something Ophthalmologists,  doctors who have finished medical school and completed residency, see as an attempt by the lesser trained optometrists to encroach on their business.

Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Anna MacKinnon, speaking to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Gabrielle Ledoux said, “It’s an awkward time of year when, in the Legislature some bills are attached to other bills and that’s what’s happening here to Rep. LeDoux’s somewhat simple bill.”

The bill being folded into HB 289 is SB 55 “An Act relating to the practice of optometry.” That bill has been the subject of a fierce battle between ophthalmologists and optometrists over who should get to do what medical work on patients eyes. The battle even spilled over to the radio airwaves with ads like this one from the Alaska Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons:

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When Sen. MacKinnon asked if Ledoux had any comments on the changes being made to her bill, LeDoux shot back matter of factly, “It will probably kill the bill, but it is what it is.” Later, an obviously dismayed Ledoux followed up,  “Normally I say “thank you for moving my bill, but I think I’m going to forgo that today.”

The move by the Finance Committee appears to be a last minute gambit by Alaska Optometric Association lobbyist Jerry Mackie to attach the language to a bill that has already passed the House, thus making it closer to overall passage.  Legislative insiders Sunday expressed extreme doubt to The Midnight Sun that the last minute move will succeed. They don’t expect the bill to pass this session.

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